The New York Giants

The New York Giants

Catching the Annual Brown-Trout Blitz in the Lake Ontario Tribs

  • By: Paul Guernsey
On the first raw, mid-November morning, Paul Thiesing shook us all out of bed long before the first hint of light had penetrated the soggy clouds. Thiesing, an artist and teacher who was serving as our unofficial guide, wanted us on the stream as early as possible. This was not because fishing in the dark amid icy drizzle and intermittent snow flurries would be especially productive or even fun, but because he had decided that we needed to find, and hold, a stretch of good fishing territory before the inevitable crowd arrived.

Word had gotten out that the big browns were moving up out of the lake, and anglers of every sort were descending on this relatively small area from every direction. I'd only been in town since the previous evening, but I had already met fly fishermen from Ohio and Connecticut, as well as spin fishermen from Canada.

The excitement was understandable. While the entire Great Lakes region boasts a shocking embarrassment of terrific steelhead tributaries, the tribs that the region's brown trout find to their liking are relatively few-and several of the best are concentrated along the southern shore of Lake Ontario between Rochester, New York, and the Niagra River.

When I say that these fish are big, I mean that. Five- to seven-pounders are the small ones. There are also plentiful if you happen to time this very brief run correctly. In fact, I am certain that for at least two weeks out of each year, western New York State possesses, by far, the best migratory brown trout fishery in the world-and that includes destinations that well-heeled anglers pay up to $10,000 to visit. I'm talking about such high-end, end-of-the-earth places as Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Russia's Kola Peninsula and New Zealand.

Of course, the New York State scenery often includes a Camouflage Curtain of spin fishermen-and more than a few recently converted fly anglers-along both banks of the stream. But then, you can't have everything.

I'd been looking forward to this trip ever since the previous spring, when Paul had first described the fishing to me, and then added that his personal ambition was to catch a 20-pound brown from one of these streams. Over the course of the summer, he had called me occasionally just to make certain I was still planning on coming. When I told him I was, he always said the same thing: "Good. Because you are not going to believe this." Then he would give a maniacal little chuckle that made my hair stand on end.

Fishing with us that morning were Paul's friends, Dorian Tergis; Rich Taintor; and Frank "Frankie Fish" Cordova. Later on Paul's dad, his nephew and his brother, joined us.

Although the stream we went to that had its own parking lot, complete with an attendant, Paul thinks it sees plenty of anglers as it is and has forbidden me to mention its name. I will tell you that it was not the well-known and heavily fished Oak Orchard Creek-although Oak Orchard was not far away. I can also tell you that we stayed at an inexpensive motel in the little lakeshore Town of Olcott, and that if you inquire after brown-trout water at any of the local tackle stores, they'll undoubtedly point you in the right direction.

Thanks to Paul's planning and cajoling, we were the first anglers on the river. We carefully picked out way down the trail by flashlight, and we actually heard the fish before we even saw the water. There were scores of them out there-hundreds, maybe-and they were splashing loudly as they chased one another through the shallows. Awestruck, we stopped on the bank for a moment just to listen; in the darkness, it was easy to imagine ourselves on an Alaskan salmon stream. In fact, mixed in with the lively browns were the slower-moving, fungus-encrusted torpedo forms of moribund king salmon. When we finally turned our flashlights on the river, they revealed large fins and tails everywhere cutting through the shallow water.

We began wading upriver, driving pods of fish through the calf-deep water ahead of us. Frank almost tripped over a log-size Chinook that swam in front of him. After regaining his balance, Frank studied the fish in his flashlight beam for a moment before advising it, "You better hurry up and get it on, 'cause you're gonna die."

Paul settled us all into some promising fishing spots. I was carrying an 8-weight rod with a floating line, and I rigged it with a 10-pound-test (1X) tippet, a tiny egg-pattern fly and a couple of small, non-toxic split-shots on the leader. On my second or third cast I hooked what I thought was the river bottom. Then the river-bottom reluctantly began to move, and I started to laugh. After a 15-minute fight, I landed a beautifully colored brown of around eight pounds. I caught a couple of more good fish as the damp dawn descended, and then other anglers-spin fishermen, bait guys who fished with mesh-wrapped bundles of fish eggs called "spawn sacks" and also quite a few fly fishers-filtered in around me and across the stream from me. Shortly I found myself in a crowd-but I was still catching fish. And, although I hear this is not always the case, the crowd was a rather polite one. Anglers of all denominations gave each other enough space to fish, and whenever I had to chase a brown-or the one 10-pound steelhead I caught-downstream, people always let me get by without complaint.

After a while, I began to notice that I was about the only angler on the stream who bothered chasing his fish; most of the other fly fishermen fought them from right where they stood, often with the line clamped firmly against the rod grip. Needless to say, this resulted in a lot of break-offs. I later asked Paul about this and he said, "There are just so many browns that losing a seven- to ten-pounder is no big deal." Where else would you ever hear an explanation like that?

There were a few other things that threw me into culture shock as well. One was that you could not necessarily predict which angler would kill his limit of fish just by looking at his fishing gear. Not only did I see quite a few fly fishers take some huge fish off that little stream, but their braces of browns looked far from picturesque as they went slithering and twisting up the muddy bankside trail at the end of a stout stringer. I don't mean to sound prissy-and I suppose it's possible that the Lake Ontario brown trout population can easily sustain the "take"-but it's been a long time since I've seen a trout "harvest" on this scale. In fact, never.

I asked around, and some anglers told me that these big browns were delicious if you cooked them right. But other people curled their upper lips and said that not only were the fish full of toxic metals from Lake Ontario, but that they fed primarily on alewife herring and therefore tasted fairly foul. And then there were the guys who just wanted the eggs. I was baffled by a pair good-natured guys from Ohio who were doing a more-than-competent job of catching browns on fly gear using a wide variety of egg patterns. They told me that they fished every day until they each had caught-and killed-three female browns, which they then stripped of their roe. When I asked them what they did with all the eggs, they said they used them as steelhead bait back in Ohio. I was too astonished to ask why they didn't use the same flies on Ohio steelhead that they used on New York browns, especially since they clearly knew how effective they were.

The following day was even darker, with thick flurries and a numbing chill in the air. Paul took us to a different stream-this one a gorgeous little creek that ran through miles of wooded farmland. An angler could easily find solitude here, and with just a few brown trout of the size we had all caught the day before, the fishing here would be about as close to perfection as any angler could ask for. Unfortunately, the browns had not yet made it into this creek, and Paul and Frank, both of whom had fished this creek the year before, were reduced to taking us on a tour of their previous hotspots.

"Remember this place?" Paul would say.

"Yeah; there were about a hundred browns right there under that tree. Big ones, too."

The rest of us could only stare, shivering, at the empty water, imagining what it had been like and wishing we would be there when the browns finally came in.

The afternoon found us back at the first, crowded place-and we started catching fish again. Paul clearly was one of those natural-born killers with a fly rod, and he seemed to hook three fish for every one that I caught. When the day was finished, he still had not caught his 20-pounder-but he had taken a 15-pound male with a huge, hooked jaw, and he proclaimed himself perfectly satisfied. I saw that fish, and I would have been perfectly satisfied, too.

This big browns/small stream fishing takes place in the late fall-although the fish also run up a few creeks in the spring. In addition, you can catch steelhead from many Lake Ontario tributaries in the spring, summer and fall. While I have not fished this area with a guide, I know two Buffalo-area guides whom I can recommend without hesitation. One is Rick Kustich, co-author of the book, Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead. You can reach him at the Oak Orchard Fly Shop; 716-626-1323. The other is Mike Augat (716-652-7060, e-mail [email protected]). I've fished for striped bass with Mike, so I know he's got the guiding skills to do a great job for anybody. Both Kustich and Augat tell me that if an angler knows where to look-or has a knowledgable guide to help out-Western New York State offers some relatively uncrowded angling for both browns and steelhead.